Lunchtable TV Talk: Looking – “Doris, I will definitely go swimming with you even though my legs are painfully white”

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Imagine you are an overweight, confused, closeted gay, adolescent boy growing up in the US Midwest. In your 13-year-old imagination, an “out” future could be filled with equally out friends in San Francisco, a mythical mecca for everyone like you. Your imagination would be full of gay gamer conventions and gay gamer proms where you could get a happy prom-night photo with your cute new boyfriend. You’d probably have a cool job and many nights would end in party sequences fueled by loud music and very little, but stilted, dialogue – possibly parties in the woods where anthems from Sister Sledge would form your soundtrack. (Days before the show’s party-in-woods premier featuring “Lost in Music”, Mr Firewall and I planned a Scottish John “Enunciate Excessively” Hannah remix. Whatever else I might criticize about Looking, it’s got a fab and fun soundtrack.)

If the premise of Looking, the recently canceled HBO show about a group of gay friends living in San Francisco, were to dramatize what a 13-year-old gay boy imagined his future would be like, the show would be perfect.

I am not a gay man; I am not in San Francisco; I would therefore never claim any kind of expertise about a gay man’s life, in San Francisco or not. Like most lives, there is no such thing as one, “normal” way to live. I wanted to like this show. The premise had promise – squandered because I don’t think the show resonated with viewers of any demographic.

Believe me, I kept trying to watch – giving up and coming back, hoping it might have been one of those shows that takes time to develop its characters. But it never got any better. Instead the characters mostly became more like caricatures and more petulant with time. I got the occasional glimpse of self-awareness in these characters, but opportunities were frittered away casually. The worst character and my biggest problem with the show was its main character, Patrick. His behavior and manifold diatribes and tantrums were reflective of a teenage kid – all bluster, fluster and inexperience – trying to assert himself. Unfortunately that is the problem with the whole show – it comes back to this unsophisticated and teenage approach to virtually everything, especially in imbuing characters with identities. Maybe viewers could relate to that kind of awkwardness and discomfort. But average adults in their 30s and 40s generally don’t behave like Patrick or his friend, the just-turned-40 Dom, who is struggling with facing the onslaught of age (but not with particular subtlety or realism).

The best characters and only ones I cared about were barely there – Scott Bakula’s recurring guest role as Lynn; a random wheelchair-bound guy at the gamer conference who, in a blink-and-you-missed-it conversation, called Patrick out on his cluelessness/obviousness; Malik, the boyfriend of Dom’s constant friend and roommate, Doris (who never ceased to annoy me), and Richie, Patrick’s ex-boyfriend. Yeah, in fact, if the show were about Richie and his life, I think that might have been a better premise.

TV critics and others who really rooted for the show, at least on a thematic level, have echoed my sentiments with greater eloquence and clarity. For one, it’s a bloody boring show. I kept waiting for something really interesting to happen, for someone to express something close to the depth that all the characters claimed to want. But it never elevated itself above the level of engagement or excitement I find in an ad for pharmaceuticals, nor above the manipulations and presumption of what will interest the viewer also characteristic of pharma ads. This same boredom is echoed in the aforementioned citation.

Many defenses of the show attempt to explain that the show’s ho-hum dullness is where its genius comes from – the world can finally see that gay people are just people like everyone else. This is not a revelation. There are other TV shows about all manner of people, including gay individuals and couples, that show us how normal they are, with daily routines, normal problems and happy families, who are not mind-numbingly boring. And their lives don’t revolve solely around being gay. It’s a big part of the identity as much as sexuality is a part of anyone’s life. But does it define everything? It feels like Looking wanted to find the balance between “look at how dull and normal we are” but still wanted to make the entire existence of this group of guys be about being gay. All of that is perfectly fine – I don’t expect a show to be perfect. I don’t expect this or any show to represent an entire, and varied, community. But I do expect that there will be some entertainment value or some compelling reason to watch.

It’s a tough balance to strike, as a fantastic Gawker article points out:

“And, of course, above all else, a piece of gay pop culture, in these United States, in 2014, has the challenge of arguing that gays are people too—that we’re more than sex maniacs and objects of amusement” and “In Looking, gay men get to be boring on TV at last.”

It would be stellar if, as the same great critique put it, the show didn’t make you feel like watching is akin to “paging through a magazine at the dentist”. Looking felt like work to watch, which was disappointing.

It does give me comfort to know that something like Looking (but good heavens, NOT Looking!) makes its way to TV and is seen as just another part of the TV landscape. Looking makes it all seem farcical, as an article at Huffington Post explains:

“Like those mostly forgotten, cheesy 1990’s “gay” movies that we watched because they put us in a fishbowl and were pretty much all we had as media representation and also had dark sets and muted tones and lots of Erasure songs (seriously, guys, in 2014 Erasure’s the band you pick to give your show its Episode Two finish?), Looking spends all of its time telling us what we already know: We are men, we are gay men, and we like to have sex with other gay men. If the show were about straight guys it would be 60 seconds long and a beer commercial.”

Despite all of this, and my relief at being able to cross this show off my Sunday-night viewing list (yes, I like torturing myself with miserable TV), Looking did find its way into so many of my TV-related conversations. Granted, I was always talking about how much it sucks and how much potential it wasted week after week. But perhaps that is a mark of something the show did right – it certainly did not unify any group of people behind it. Was it designed to spark these debates? Opinions were decidedly mixed – plenty of haters and then plenty of people who felt that its presence on TV was proof that there is not really such a thing as “gay life” – life is just life. Fair enough.

TV overdoses, past and present – Random stream of consciousness

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According to HuffPost the best line uttered on tv in 2013 was, “Not great, Bob!”

““Not great, Bob!” It was only three words, spoken by an angry Pete Campbell as he joined the ever-sunny Bob Benson in an elevator on Mad Men.””

As someone who loves any line that involves “Bob” (e.g. “I used to have a pretty good pen, Bob.” Or “Scarves, Bob? His life will be filled with scarves?”), I agree. Especially because I am, like most, a Mad Men fan – and possibly an even bigger fan of the work James Wolk has done on Mad Men, the entertaining and mostly underrated Political Animals and The Crazy Ones – he and Hamish Linklater are the best parts of that show.

I get roped into a lot of television shows – not just because television is improving and offers a depth and breadth that seemed unimaginable a decade ago. I live in the middle of the Swedish woods and am a workaholic multitasker. I need some noise going on in the background all the time, and when it’s not music, it’s television shows. Mostly I carefully select the shows to which I become devoted – but in the interim, I watch a lot of stuff halfheartedly (like the aforementioned The Crazy Ones, which is not very good and only offers a funny line now and then or –puke, puke – guest appearances from – PUKE – Josh Groban. I watch, I judge, I keep watching sometimes even when a show sucks or even after it loses the plot (example, Revenge) or becomes passé (case in point – Grey’s Anatomy). Some stuff is middling all the time – entertaining but nothing extraordinary (Elementary, Grimm, Revolution – stuff that does not require careful attention, enabling my half-watching notice, mostly things I will refer to as “network stuff”. As much as the major networks are trying to be edgy, they are still just middle-ground followers. Half-baked ideas relying on shock value, soapy dramatics, riding the coattails of the deserved success of edgier, deeper, different storytelling from free and premium cable channels. (Not that all non-network tries are successful. The US version of The Killing started off with promise, dragged its feet with sloppy storytelling and carried its first-season mystery into season two without resolution – never a good idea, right David Lynch/Twin Peaks/Who killed Laura Palmer? People extended the show goodwill enough to give it a third season, which was arguably much better than the second season, but it was really too late.)

Speaking of killing, I also caught a brief article on TV characters who should be killed off. I found that I agreed with the majority. The article also brought up some other random thoughts – because that is what a multitasker does – lots of different things at once, with disconnected thoughts shooting through the brain at lightning speed. Sometimes I capture them – sometimes not (but they were not likely worth capturing).

I only recently started watching Scandal – rapidly caught up on the previous seasons over holiday break. I dislike Quinn – never had a liking for her, but it has gotten worse. I agree that she can go anytime. I have trouble with Tony Goldwyn in general – he is a good actor but for me, he is Carl the bad guy from Ghost (a film I hated). I cannot do anything except make fun of Ghost. Everything about it was so cheesy, and the villains (Willie Lopez!? Carl!). I also remember ghosts of TV’s past when Tony Goldwyn was a guest star on Designing Women, asking the women to design his funeral. He played a gay man who was going to die from AIDS, and the episode ended with his funeral. Designing Women was a preachy show and brought up a lot of issues of the day (mid/late 80s issues). Not that AIDS is not an issue today – but the issue and the illness – or approach to the illness – have changed, maybe in part because of mainstream treatment of the disease?

Which then led me to think about the show Life Goes On (not least because one of its principal actors, Patti LuPone, is now in the ensemble cast of American Horror Story: Coven. Not a favorite in the US although it went on for seasons and seasons. It was probably the first show that put a family front and center that included a member with Down Syndrome and prominently featured that character in the storylines. While that was probably groundbreaking at the time, the show also gave one of its main characters an HIV-positive teenage boyfriend (played by Chad Lowe – probably one of the only things I remember him doing since his career has been overshadowed by his brother Rob and his ex-wife, Hilary Swank – who would have imagined that when she was in one of the many Karate Kid sequels?). I thought about how this character introduction was also its own kind of groundbreaking. While Life Goes On was never actually what I could call “entertaining”, it somehow tackled big issues without being over the top or preachy. It’s no wonder it was not popular (I am told that it was popular in Iceland for some reason – so everyone remembers “Corky” – I suspect if I were to ask a representative sample of Americans if they remember Corky or Becca Thatcher, they would not).

Where is this line in television between entertainment and education? At times Designing Women just felt like a mouthpiece for the creator’s political views and feminist diatribes. Life Goes On, without being too heavy handed or dramatic, still felt a bit too real, making it too depressing to be a gripping drama. Meanwhile, something like The Wire can do both – “edutainment”. But, it is also true that The Wire was not exactly popular during its first run. It has more of the slow-burn quality that comes from being able to buy whole seasons of tv on DVD or online for streaming/download. Some things just don’t catch on until well after the fact. Some fall into obscurity (Homefront, anyone?) while others live on and gather a loyal, vocal following (Arrested Development, Friday Night Lights – note that I cite TWO Kyle Chandler classics!). Thanks to the push for original programming from unorthodox sources (Netflix), we got another season of Arrested Development after years of waiting. Was it worth it? Hard to say – need to watch it more than once to assess. That was the beauty of Arrested Development all along – you almost had to watch it more than once to catch everything. The show was laced with multilayered jokes and references, and without a pretty well-stocked brain bar, getting the perfectly hilarious mixed cocktail it intended could be challenging. It was funny on its surface in many cases but even funnier if you could unpack all the layers. (The Simpsons is a lot like that, too – albeit more so in its earlier years.)

But then so much of pop culture – any culture or discipline – relies on shared references.

For example, everyone needs to see the 1980s classic film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High – I do not know how many times I have referenced it lately and heard it referenced. There was a con mentioned in the show White Collar called “The Phoebe Cates” (referring to the most memorable scene in the film). There was a reference in The Crazy Ones to the scene-stealing Jeff Spicoli (played by then-unknown Sean Penn). Most good pop culture – even the not so good – plays on these references and adds a richness

For the sake of posterity and trying to remember how, when, where and on what I flushed so much time down the toilet, I’m listing as much as I can remember of television I recently ingested and random thoughts on some of them. There are way too many other shows I have not listed (like Mad Men, actually – because they are not on now or soon).

Nashville – Not great, not terrible. I like Connie Britton (thanks to her work in Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story and early Spin City) – not sure I buy this show but I actually like a lot of the music in the show.

The Crazy Ones – This show is all right but I don’t go out of my way to see it. James Wolk and Hamish Linklater make the show for me (really enjoyed both of their work in other things as well). Robin Williams is too over the top as usual and Sarah Michelle Gellar, whom I keep trying to like, is just not for me. I do love Brad Garrett in his role, though. The episodes seemed to get better when he arrived.

The Good Wife – New life breathed into this (not that it needed it) when main character goes off to form her own law firm.

Justified – can’t wait for the new season, coming up soon. I love everything about this show and all its characters. Agree with the writer of article cited above – do not want ANY of these characters to die.

Once Upon a Time – I admit that I have skipped the whole current season of this show. I gave up.

Californication – Thank god we are heading into the final season of this show that should have died ages ago. Sick of this story being rehashed of some loser middle-aged dude who manages to pull his head out of his ass long enough to do something artistically rewarding only to fuck up his personal life and screw over all the people in his fucked life again and again. It’s only funny or forgivable for so long…

House of Lies – Pretty entertaining because it plays on all the stereotypical business clichés and management consultant language. Don Cheadle plays a great asshole.

House of Cards – Entertaining remake of the UK version, proof that creativity can be launched from all kinds of wombs (Netflix original programming)

Episodes – Looking forward to new season. Have been surprised by how crass but simultaneously funny this show is.

Lilyhammer – Funny but also like being hit over the head with stereotypes. But then no one outside of Norway knows anything about Norway – but this might be the sort of thing they imagine. UDI (immigration directorate) might take offense to its treatment, but I’ve never heard a happy story coming out of there.

Shameless – Looking forward to the new season

Grey’s Anatomy – End already. It’s getting petty (or pettier) and duller by the minute

Revenge – It was always soapy but now it’s just ridiculous and has lost any edge it had. Best part is the ease with which character Nolan Ross switches between male and female love interests and it’s just no big deal to anyone. Perfect.

Parks and Recreation – Losing its comedic edge unfortunately.

Community – interested in seeing how this is rebooted now that its controversial creator is back at the helm. Fingers crossed after dismal previous season.

Scandal – Outlandish but a guilty pleasure.

Hawaii Five-0 – another guilty pleasure. I like the chemistry among the cast. Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan together are pretty funny. I like some of the cheeky jokes, for example about Magnum PI – long ago and faraway Hawaii-based TV

Elementary – Big Jonny Lee Miller fan, like how Aidan Quinn is pretty much always a New York police captain in every show now, and Lucy Liu has grown on me in almost all the roles she has done since annoying Ally McBeal BS.

Downton Abbey – I could fully see where the popularity came from in the beginning but it is grating my nerves now

How I Met Your Mother – So glad this is coming to an end. It used to be quite funny at times but this last season feels like a stretch.

White Collar – Time filler. Sometimes quite entertaining. I like the characters but it’s a fairly straightforward show.

Veep – Caught up on this a few months ago and loved it. Laughed a lot at the awkwardness.

The Walking Dead – When it comes back, I wonder where the gang will go. I have always been happy that the show was not afraid to kill people off as they went – that’s realistic.

American Horror Story – Enjoying. I love the big ensemble cast and like that each season brings back the same people in different roles. I never used to like Jessica Lange but this has put a few points in her column. Angela Bassett is, for lack of a better word, amazing. She always is.

Treme – An abbreviated final season. Interested in seeing how it all turns out, even though things never quite “turn out” – I don’t expect finality.

Girls – Clever at first. Eventually just annoying as all fuck. The article above wants Marnie to die. I would not mind if they all did.

Top of the LakeJane Campion is a complicated filmmaker, and she is no different when introducing her storytelling to the small screen. Visually arresting backdrop to a complicated and ugly story, Elisabeth Moss takes center stage as a New Zealander/detective who goes home for the first time in years, dredging up some of the horrors of her own past. Excellent viewing.

Luther – The story is often really outlandish and unbelievable but we can’t help loving Idris Elba, can we? Or the troubled John Luther that he portrays.

Game of Thrones – I resisted. I tried to watch once but did not get far. I tried again and got sucked in this time. Much better. I am a Peter Dinklage fan anyway but came to appreciate the whole thing (even if I still acknowledge that he’s the best thing about the show)

Bron – Swedish/Danish original of the police show – great characters.

The Bridge – US version of Swedish/Danish police show. It took a while to accept Diane Kruger and her character, but I loved Demian Bichir’s character immediately. Also appreciated Ted Levine as the lieutenant – as I loved him in Monk – and Thomas M. Wright as Steven Linder – he also figured prominently into Top of the Lake.

Orange is the New Black – Binge watched. Mostly really enjoyed this – of course it’s not perfect but it was different from most of what else is out there. More accolades for Netflix taking a chance on its own programming.

Longmire – Just renewed for a third season. Can you argue with a show that has Lou Diamond Phillips in it? No.

Ray Donovan – Not sure about this show still. I like most of the characters, but all I can think of when I watch this is that the whole plot development is advanced almost entirely by people making phone calls on their mobiles – way too much time on the phone for everyone involved. Character development suffers a bit…

Homeland – Ok, this show went off the rails many times. I still enjoy it, largely because I have enjoyed the performances of Mandy Patinkin and F Murray Abraham (he will always be Salieri to me). But let’s hope that the next season takes a new direction in light of some of what transpired in the end of the latest season.

Masters of Sex – One of the best things to come along in the last round of shows. Excellent and likeable cast, a sensitive subject handled with sensitivity and a deft hand. Beautifully done. A lot of accolades have gone to star Lizzy Caplan (well-deserved), but other cast members, including virtually unrecognizable Julianne Nicholson and, as the repressed housewife discovering sexual secrets about her husband, the always great Allison Janney.

The Newsroom – My opinion is tipping toward dislike. The background music playing in many scenes tells too much of the story – soaring music that somehow betrays that Jeff Daniels’s character is going to do something liberal and benevolent that no one expects. Too much of the annoying Maggie (played by Alison Pill) and a whole stupid storyline there. I know this is Aaron Sorkin and his famous fast-talking, wordy spiels for all the characters, but I don’t buy the characters here. Mac (Emily Mortimer) is especially out there – someone is unlikely to ascend to her position if this insecure and flighty. Best characters – Sam Waterston, Jane Fonda, Hamish Linklater (a few episodes in the most recent season). They kept the thing grounded.

True Blood – End already? The recent season was a bit more entertaining than the previous two but I could do without this one.

Boardwalk Empire – One of my all-time favorites. I don’t actually know many people who like it, but I love it. I think it becomes more engrossing each season and love the actors they bring in. Somehow the vast ensemble does not get muddled – each character is distinct, even if it does mean that one needs to pay close attention to every moment of the show. Definitely a show not afraid to kill off important characters and fan favorites, which is sad but perhaps necessary to keep it going at the same level. (Actresses I have never liked, such as Patricia Arquette and Julianne Nicholson, turn in fabulous performances here.)

Sons of Anarchy – Also look forward to this ending. It has just become ridiculous. More ridiculous than it already was.

Revolution – Time filler-killer

Grimm – Time filler – like that it is set in Portland, though, so we get references to Portland’s weirdness and Voodoo Doughnut.

Hell on Wheels – I watch this almost entirely to see the performance of Christopher Heyerdahl as “The Swede”. That alone is worth the time.